Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, KCSI

(Residential Halls of Aligarh Muslim University Series/ Blog 1)

Soorat se ayaan jalaley shahi

chahrey par faroghey subhey gahi

wo mulk pe jaan deney wala

wo qaum ki naaw kheney wala

(Allama Shibli Nomani)

As promised in my previous blog, this is the first in series of blogs on the personalities on whom halls of residence at Aligarh Muslim University have been named. The list includes the luminaries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is a veritable who’s who list. But none among them can match the towering personality and lasting impact of Baba e Qaum, Sir Syed Baba. He is lovingly called by this name by Aligarians (Alumni of Aligarh Muslim University). Two halls of residences in University are named after the founder of the University: Sir Syed Hall North and Sir Syed Hall South. These halls of residence contain many heritage buildings associated with the history of Aligarh Muslim University, many of them designed by Sir Syed himself and built under his supervision. Some of the heritage buildings in the Sir Syed Hall compound include Victoria Gate, Jama Masjid, Strachey Hall, Beck Manzil, Asman Manzil, Sami Manzil, etc.

Syed Ahmed Taqvi bin Syed Muhammad Muttaqi, popularly known as Sir Syed, was born on 17 October 1817 at Delhi. His family was in service of Mughal Court for several generations (Bhatnagar, 1969) and his early education of Quran and Science was in the court itself. After the death of his father in 1838, the income from the Mughal Court reduced significantly. to support his family, Sir Syed started his career in 1838 with East India Company and after some training started working as Sadr Amin (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 42). In 1839, he was called to Agra by Sir Robert Hamilton and made Naib Munshi in Agra Collectorate (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 43). During his stay in Agra he prepared and passed the competitive exam for post of Munsif and got his diploma (Hali, 1939, p. 44). The material which he prepared for his competitive exam was published by him with his brother as co author to help others to prepare for the post of Munsif by the name of Intekhabul Akhween. It become quite popular and many people cleared the exam of Munsif with the help of the book (Hali, 1939, p.44). During this period he wrote three more books. The first was Jala ul Quloob bi Zikril Mahboob on the life of the Prophet Mohammad ﷺ . The second book was Tuhfah e Hasan and third book was Tasheel fi Jarre Saqeel which was translation of Ibn Sina’s book. It was published in 1844 (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 45). During this period he was awarded the title of Jawwadud Dawla and Arif Jung in 1942 during a ceremony at the Court (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 45, Bhatnagar, 1969). After the death of his brother, Sir Syed was transferred to Delhi where he continued to publish the newspaper, Sayed al Akhbar, which his brother started. The newspaper had its own printing press. It was here in 1847 that his book on the historical monuments of Delhi, Asarus Sanadid (Remnant signs of Ancient Heroes ) was published. It was a unique book in the sense that no such book was written on similar lines before. It contained the details of pre 1857 Delhi and its monuments, buildings and people. The book contained detailed drawings and measurements of the monument. It was translated into French in 1861 by Garcin de Tassy and based on the French translation, the Royal Asiatic Society made Sir Syed its honorary fellow on 4 July 1964 (Hali, 1939, p. 50). A highlight of Asarus Sanadid is the four statements of praise (taqreez) which are contained in the book. One of them is written by Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (Naim, 2010). The hard work that Sir Syed put in collecting relevant information for Asarus Sanadid was an indicator of things to come. It was evident that if Sir Syed started a project he would give it all and would go to any length to get quality. To read the inscriptions on Qutub Minar, he would sit in a basket and the basket would be suspended on scaffolding high enough to read the inscriptions thus putting his life in danger (Hali, A. H., 1939, pp. 47-48). This quality of Sir Syed stood him in good stead in later life.

On 3 January 1855, Sir Syed was transferred to Bijnor as Sadr Amin (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 52). During his posting at Bijnor Sir Syed published an annotated edition of Ain e Akbari. He included a number of pictures which were missing in the Ain Akbari.

In April 1858 he was transferred to Moradabad as Sadrus Sudur (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 70). In 1859, the British Government constituted a commission to try those involved in the 1857 War of Independence. Sir Syed was made part of the commission in Moradabad. His presence ensured that the work of the commission was done with Justice (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 71) and not with a feeling of taking revenge. Same year i.e. 1859 he established a Madrasa for teaching Persian at Moradabad (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 73). In 1860 there was severe famine in the area in and around Moradabad. The responsibility to arrange relief was given to Sir Syed by the Collector of Moradabad, Sir John Strachey. Sir Syed worked tirelessly to provide relief regardless of religion or social status. He personally supervised the relief efforts and even used to wash clothes of people who were sick (Hali, A. H., 1939, pp. 91-92). Sir Syed also ensured that orphans were given for adoption according to their religion to either Hindu families or Muslim families and not to the Christian Missionaries which were working there under the patronage and with the support of the British Government. It was one of his conditions to accept the responsibility of managing the relief efforts which was accepted by Sir John Strachey (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 93). Sir Syed ensured that none of the orphans was given to the Missionaries. Very soon Sir John Strachey was transferred and replaced by Mr. Power. He was inclined towards the Missionaries and ensured despite protest from Sir Syed that the orphans which were given to Hindu and Muslim families were taken back and given to Christian Missionaries by force. Even the four or five orphans who were living at Sir Syed’s house were not sparred. This incident shook him to the core and decided that very soon he will establish an orphanage for Indians were both Hindu and Muslim orphans will be taken care of and the funding will come from common people through donations. However, he very soon realised orphanage is no long term solution and unless there is education among Indians they situation can not be changed (Hali, A. H., 1939, pp. 91-94).

On 12 May 1862, Sir Syed was transferred to Ghazipur (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 105). He established a school at Ghazipur in 1863 (Hali, 1939, pp.107-108). By that time Sir Syed was of firm belief that modern ideas, particularly scientific ideas, can not be propagated unless they are available in vernacular languages. To achieve the said goal, he published an appeal “Iltimas ba khidmat saaknaaney hindustaan dar baab e taraqi taalim ahley hind” (Appeal to the residents of Hindustan regarding development of education of Indians) and distributed it in 1863 (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 106). He appealed to the people to make a society for translating old Indian books and modern scientific books in English language into Urdu language to inculcate scientific temperament. The appeal worked and Scientific Society was formed at Ghazipur in 1864. Sir Syed was elected its honorary secretary. The Duke of Argyll accepted to be appointed its patron. Lt. Governor Edmont Drummond (Lt. Governor of North Western Provinces) and Lt. Governor Sir Donald Friell McLeod (Lt. Governor of Punjab) were appointed Vice Patrons (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 106). The scientific society was later shifted to Aligarh when Sir Syed was transferred to Aligarh. The society proved to be a milestone and an important pillar in the Aligarh Movement. Membership was open to all. Out of 109 people who accepted the membership 28 were British, 34 Hindu and 47 Muslims (Usmani, A., 2009).

In 1864, Sir Syed was transferred to Aligarh from Ghazipur (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 108).. At Aligarh, on 10th May 1866, on the urging of Sir Syed, Aligarh British Indian Association was formed at Aligarh (Hali, A.H., 1939, p. 111). By 1867, he was promoted and became Judge at a Small Causes Court. In 1868, Sir Syed wrote a book “Risalae Ahkaam Ta’am Ahle Kitab“. In this book, Sir Syed used Quranic Verses and Hadith to argue that Muslims can eat with Christian and there is nothing in religion which stops them from doing so. It was quite provocative thought in that environment but according to Sir Syed himself people slowly accepted the argument and it became quite common for Muslims to share their dinning table with Britishers after some time (Hali, A.H., 1939, pp. 127-129).

It was the first war of Independence in 1857 and the subsequent suppression of Muslims by the British that shook him to the core and caused him to ponder over the fate of the community. At that time, he was posted at Bijnor and firsthand witnessed the calamity that was brought upon Indian Muslims as revenge for First War of Independence by the British. Although there was participation of every community in the War of Independence, greater blame was put on Muslims and hence the revenge. Sir Syed was so much affected by the large scale destruction and near complete annihilation of Muslim Elite (Shurafa) and was was so pained that he even thought of migrating to Egypt. However, he decided to stay and do something for the uplifting the community. In his own words, it would have been namardi (cowardice) and bemurawwati (disregardful or delinquent ) to leave the community in such a dire situation and find safe haven for himself. He decided to stay back and help his community in those trying times (Hali, A. H., 1939, p. 70). In 1859 he was promoted to the position of Sadrus Sudoor and transferred to Moradabad (Hali, 1939, p. 70). During his posting in Moradabad, he published Tarikh e Sarkashi Bijnor (History of the uprising of Bijnor,). Same year he wrote Asbab e Baghawat e Hind (The Causes of the Indian Mutiny) and submitted it to the British government. Given the times and circumstances, it was a daring and forceful critique of the British, their policies towards Indians particularly Muslims and their heavy handed handling of the revolt.

Meanwhile in 1861, Sir William Muir’s book “The Life of Mohammad” was published in 1861 from England. The book was full of Christian bias against Muslims and Islam as was noted by contemporary scholars. When Sir Syed read the book, he was saddened and wanted to write a rebuttal. He started collecting material for the same. In the meantime he got an opportunity to travel to England. His son Syed Mahmood got scholarship for higher education in England. Sir Syed decided to accompany him to England. The reasons why Sir Syed wanted to travel to England were manifold. Apparently he was going there to see the development of Science and Technology and firsthand learn about the reasons of Britain’s development. The idea was to learn and apply the same for the benefit of Indians so that they can also prosper. Another underlying desire for this journey was to collect references from the British libraries for his rebuttal of Muir’s book. Sir Syed believed that he can get relevant material in British Museum Library and India Office Library (Hali, A.H., 1939, p. 118). Before this opportunity arose, Sir Syed had already started writing rebuttal of Muir’s book. However, he faced paucity of reference material in India. The opportunity to travel to England was too enticing to be missed as Sir Syed and he immediately started his preparation for the all important journey. It is interesting to note that the recommendation of scholarship to Syed Mahmood was given by Sir William Muir himself in his capacity of Lt. Governor of North Western Province. It is also interesting to note that Sir Syed called on Sir William Muir before embarking on his journey to England. On 1 April 1869, Sir Syed left for England. For Sir Syed the journey was so important that to raise money for the same he mortgaged his house at 14 % per annum and borrowed money from his friends so as to meet the expenses of his trip (Naim, C.M., 2011). Besides mortgaging his house Sir Syed sold his personal library for which had so painstakingly collected books (Hali, A. H.,1939, p. 132). Sir Syed’s stay in England lasted for 17 long months. During this time, he was able to meet a lot of dignitaries of British high society. He was invited to many meetings in England. Besides he visited several colleges and Universities. He also extensively used the library of British Museum to collect reference material for his book. He wrote a series of articles in Urdu and got them published in England itself by getting them translated to English. During his stay in England he was awarded the C.S.I. on 6 August 1869 by the Duke of Argyll (Hali, A. H., 1839, p 137). During his stay in England, Sir Syed attended several meetings of Royal Asiatic Society and was present in the last reading of Charles Dickens at the Society. He was also was given membership of Athenaeum Club. It was a huge honour as at that time there was a waiting list of more than 3000 people, some of whom were waiting for 12 years to get its prestigious membership. Sir Syed stayed in England for 17 months and left England for India on 4 September 1870 (Hali, A.H., 1939, pp. 139-144).

Once back in India, the first thing Sir Syed did was to start Tehzibul Akhlaq. The first volume of Tehzibul Akhlaq came out of press o 24 December 1870. Sir Syed was major contributor of articles to Tehzibul Akhlaq in its first inning of six year as can be gauged from the fact that out 226 articles during that period, Sir Syed alone contributed 112 article. These articles covered a variety of topics ranging from religion, education, morality, philosophy etc. (Hali, A. H., 1939, pp. 148-150). Sir Syed’s articles in Tehzibul Akhlaq besides their inherent message were examples of Concinnous (Insha Pardazi) writings of the highest order. According to Allama Shibli, It was because of Sir Syed that Urdu language became capable of expressing a wide variety of topics in the realm of politics, morality and philosophy (Nomani, S., 1898).

To further achieve his goal of uplifting the Muslim community, he started Madrasatul Uloom Musalmanan-e-Hind at Aligarh. The Madrasa opened its doors to students on 24 May 1875 to coincide with the 56th birthday of Queen Victoria (Hali, A. H.,1939, p. 168). Two years down the line it became Mohammadan Anglo Oriental College at Aligarh on 8 January 1887. This was perhaps the first concrete and thought out response of the Muslims of India to the challenges amidst the hostile environment facing them in the later half of the 18th century after the first war of independence 1857.

This inaugural function of the establishment of the College was presided by the then Viceroy and Governor General of India, Lord Lytton, in the presence of Sir Syed and other dignitaries. Lord Lytton laid the foundation stone of the college. The address presented by Sir Syed to the Lord Lytton said that “from the seed we sow today, there may spring a mighty tree, whose branches like those of banyan of the soil, shall in their turn strike firm roots into the earth, and themselves send forth new and vigorous sapling: that this college may expand in a University whose sons shall go forth throughout the length and breadth of the land to preach the gospel of free enquiry, of large hearted toleration and of pure morality ”.

Despite the negative comments and personal attacks against him, Sir Syed had complete faith in what he was doing. Addressing Sir John Strachey during the foundation laying ceremony of the central building of the then college, he said “The central hall of our college buildings, which is to receive your name, and on the basement of which we are now assembled to greet you, will become one day the scene of intellectual contests of youthful ambition and educational honours” (Bhatnagar, 1969). The major problem that was faced by the College committee was to raise enough funds to run the College. Different methods were used for the purpose. Committees were formed which went to different districts to raise funds. Sir Syed even started a lottery for an amount of 30,000 rupees. After distributing the winning amount, 20,000 rupees was saved and used for the development of the College. In response to the criticism for the methodology used to collect funds, he argued that while one does many wrongs for his own personal benefit, what is the harm in one wrong for the benefit of the community? (Hali, A. H., 1939, pp. 176-177). Another innovative method which was adopted by him to raise funds for the College was to draw paintings with message and send them to rich people. The method worked and many new avenues of funding were opened (Hali, A. H.,1939, pp. 182-183).

Despite the paucity of funds, Sir Syed did not compromise when it came to the construction of buildings. While the other members of the College Committee wanted to save money, Sir Syed was of the view that the buildings of College should be grand. He believed that grand buildings will create a positive impact and would last for a long time. It is a fact that “Today it is not even possible to visualize the state of mind of Indian Muslims after the failure of the first war of Indian Independence in 1857. In the life of any community, the road from power to slavery is extremely painful. It is not easy to visualize and start something grand in such an environment. It required vision, indomitable courage and perseverance. These characteristics are very difficult to find in an environment of defeat and helplessness. After seeing Jama Masjid, Strachey Hall and Victoria Gate, who can say that these were built by a community who had just lost everything? This extraordinary effort was a reflection of yearning to regain the lost glory. It was a symbolic indication of trying to move from the present darkness to a bright future and also a pointer to future possibilities. When the political power was lost, Sir Syed laid the foundation of Kingdom of Knowledge and Enlightenment. It was not just an institution where degrees were awarded to get government jobs but it fulfilled many cultural and psychological needs of the besieged Muslim community” (Zilli, I.A., 2018).

1n 1876 Sir Syed took premature retirement after serving in various capacities in the British government to focus on his educational movement at Aligarh. His pension was fixed at 400 rupees per month (Kidwai, S., 2010, pl. 39). While at Aligarh in 1877 he started writing the tafsir of the Quran by the name of “tafsir al quran wa huwa al huda wal furqan“. He continued working on it till he breathed his last in 1898. He was able to complete 7 volumes which cover 16 para (parts). According to Sir Syed there are Muslims who need philosophical proof and logic for everything and his tafsir was an attempt to convince them with logic and it was not for those who already have belief and conviction. However, since its publication it has drawn criticism and negativity from majority of Ulema. As a result even the positive aspects in the tafsir have not been discussed by and large (Azmi, A. A., 2020). What is disheartening is that many have questioned his intention. His intention towards Islam and Prophet ﷺ was clear when he sold his library and mortgaged his house so as to travel to England to write a rejoinder to Sir William Muir’s book and defend the honour of the Prophet ﷺ.

While at Aligarh he was made member of Viceregal Legislative Council at the recommendation of Lord Lytton which was later continued on the the recommendation of Lord Ripon (Hali, 1939, p. 206). It was here that he was honoured with Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India (KCSI) in 1888 through his membership to the Imperial Legislative Council (The London Gazette, 3 January 1888, p. 14). He was also chosen fellow of Calcutta University and Allahabad University by the Viceroy in the years 1876 and 1887 respectively. The 1889 he received an LL.D. honoris causa from The University of Edinburgh on the recommendation of Sir William Muir (Naim, C.M., 2010). Once at Aligarh, he immersed himself into the College project completely. On 27 March 1888 he left this world (Hali, A. H., 1939, pp. 266-67) leaving behind an unmatched legacy and a void that would be impossible to fill. It was almost 22 years after his death that Sir Syed’s dream of establishing a University for the Muslims of India was fulfilled when on 9 September 1920 through a bill passed in the Imperial Legislative Assembly and Mohammadan Anglo Oriental College was converted into a University (Noorani, A. G., 2016).

Sir Syed was a multi faceted personality. Besides being an Urdu writer par excellence, he was educationist, religious scholar, mufassir e Quran, social reformer, historian, judge, community organizer, philosopher and philanthrope all rolled into one. Whatever field he picked up he worked tirelessly and achieved excellence. One of his fiercest critic, Akbar Allahabadi, acknowledged the same at the time of Sir Syed’s death in the following words

hamari baten hi baten hain syed kaam karta tha

na bhulo farq jo hai kahney waley karney waley main

kahey jo chahey koi main to kahta hoon ki ae akbar

khuda bakhshey bohot si khoobiyan theen marney waley main

For more information and references, please see:

Azmi, Altaf Ahmad (2020) Tafsir al quran (Sir Syed): Ek Muta’ala. Maarif (April), Vol. 205, No. 4, pp. 245-253.

Bhatnagar, Shyam Krishna (1969) History of The M.A.O. College Aligarh. Sir Syed Bicentenary Celebrations Aligarh Muslim University. Caxton Press: Delhi.

Faruqi, Shamsur Rehman. (n.d.) From Antiquary to Social Revolutionary: Syed Ahmad Khan and the Colonial Experience. Available at: Accessed on 11 October 2020

Hali, Altaf Hussain (1939) Hayat e Jawed. Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (New Edition). Delhi.

Khursheed, Anwar (2019) Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Legacy Goes Beyond Securing Minority Rights. 17 October. The Quint. Available at: Accessed on 11 October 2020.

Kidwai, Shafey (2010) Cementing ethics with modernism – An appraisal of Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan’s Writings. Gyan Publishing House: Delhi.

Naim, Choudhri Mohammed (2010) Syed Ahmad and His Two Books Called ‘Asar-al-Sanadid’. Modern Asian Studies (pp. 1-40). Cambridge University Press

Naim, Choudhri Mohammed(2011) A Musafir to London. Outlook. 17 October. Available at: Accessed on 9 October 2020.

Noorani, Abdul Ghafoor Majeed (2016). History of Aligarh Muslim University. Frontline (13 May). Available at: Accessed on 14 October 2020.

Shibli Nomani (1898, May) Sir Syed Marhoom aur Urdu Literature. Mohammadan Anglo Oriental College Magazine and Aligarh Institute Gazette. Vol. 6, No. 5., pp. 205-214.

Siddiqui, Mohammad Asim (2015) Man who knew tomorrow. 16 October. The Hindu. Available at: Accessed on 11 October 2020.

The London Gazette (1888). Issue 25722, p. 14. Available at: Accessed on 15 October 2020.

Usmani, Afzal (2009). A history of the Scientific Society. Two Cricles. Available at: Accessed on 16 October 2020.

Zilli, Ishtiyaq Ahmad (2018). Excerpts from speech given while excepting the Sir Syed Excellence Award 2018 on behalf of Darul Musanneffin Shibli Academy at Aligarh Muslim University. Available at: Accessed on 14 October 2020.